When you're walking up the sidewalk to Tierra del Fuego in Sugar Land Town Square, the first thing that hits you is the smell of roasting meat. Most of that smoky scent wafts from a glass-encased rotisserie at the front of the restaurant, where big hunks of outside skirt steak and slabs of ribs are sizzling and popping over the fire. It's not just cooking -- it's theater.
Tierra del Fuego is an Argentinean restaurant that wants to entice diners with its beef-centric menu and, once they're inside, seduce them completely with its sexy, dark dining environment. Down the aisles and between the tables, sleek tango dancers execute their intricate, silky moves unobtrusively across the floor. In the open kitchen, flames do their own dance across the grills and make the meat sizzle and pop.
It almost works. It's easy to join in the dance and order the parrillada gaucha, a meat-fest "for two" that includes sweetbreads, short ribs, Argentine sausage, blood sausage, chicken and bife de fuego (outside skirt steak). Then the platter arrives and the mistake becomes obvious. It's about five pounds of meat, most of which doesn't have much seasoning.
That's far too much for two people, unless they're high school linebackers.
The serving strategy is flawed, too. A wooden cart is wheeled to the table and the server brings out a big metal tray of meat. Underneath is a container of coals that keeps the platter so hot that the meat doesn't just stay warm, it continues to cook. While the diners are picking individual items off the platter, the rest is getting overdone.
The sweetbreads, which are pounded into strips, battered and fried, need just a touch of salt to bring them to life. The sausages on the tray are good, too. The blood sausage, known as morcilla, is a beautiful burgundy color, creamy and a bit fatty, and is seasoned with a touch of allspice. The Argentine sausage is chunky and porky and has the right touch of salt. Regrettably, these are the best meats on the platter, and the sausages aren't even made in-house, so Tierra can't take much credit for them.
The chicken had the misfortune of being at the bottom center of the platter and ended up overcooked. The crosscut short ribs were bony and dry as soon as they arrived, and there was nary a bit of salt on the outside skirt steak.
Strictly speaking, the parrillada gaucha is a tremendous value. It's $52 and comes with two sides. All that meat, though, is simply way too much for two people, who might find they're going home with a huge box of underseasoned, overcooked leftovers and a belly full of self-loathing.
Even Argentines don't eat like this anymore. Beef consumption there has fallen. A 2013 New York Times article says that at its high point, in 1956, 222 pounds of beef were consumed by each resident of that country on average. By 2011, the average had dropped to 121 pounds per person. Few respect beef as part of their heritage more than Argentines and Brazilians do (except perhaps Texans), but even they now seek a varied diet that includes more vegetables and pork.
When Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chão opened in Houston in 2000, it made a lot of sense. Texas has its own love affair with beef, and the thought of eating it until you just couldn't take any more seemed luxurious and decadent. These days, that seems excessive and artery-clogging. Dining has come a long way since then.
There's the option of individual steaks, of course. Rib eyes tend to be the juiciest because they have more fat. This seemed like the best opportunity for Tierra del Fuego to prove it could make a flavorful steak. The meat was cooked perfectly to the requested medium rare, but sadly also proved that the underseasoning issue is consistent. Is there a ban on salt in Sugar Land?
For a weekday lunch, the zapallitos rellenos, or baked, stuffed zucchini, sounded like an interesting, vegetable-centric starter. Unfortunately, they turned out to be no more interesting than the stuffed green bell peppers you might see at a church potluck. The ground beef filling had a dose of green bell pepper in it, so it even tasted similar.
The most interesting part of the dish is the delivery mechanism. Very large zucchini ends are hollowed out and a thin slice is taken off the bottoms to ensure that they stay upright on the plate. They're topped with pomodoro sauce (a basic Italian tomato sauce) and melted Provolone. If the filling had been more interesting, the dish could have been a winner.
That pomodoro sauce is not the only time Italian shows up on the menu. There are a few pasta dishes, as well as chicken and beef scallopini. We tried a side dish of fettuccine Alfredo. There wasn't enough cheese in the sauce, and, like pretty much everything else at Tierra del Fuego, it was bland. Lesson learned: Don't order Italian food at an Argentinean restaurant, or at least not at this one.
There's also lomo saltado, a dish that's a melding of Peruvian and Chinese ingredients. It is essentially a stir-fry and includes onion, soy sauce and chunks of beef and is served alongside white rice and french fries. Having two starchy items on the same side may seem odd, but there's a reason for it: Rice hails from the Asian side of the equation, while potatoes are ubiquitous in Peru.
It's a dish that, in the right hands, can be rustic and satisfying, but the one at Tierra del Fuego disappoints with tough chunks of meat and vegetables that lack any kind of spice, heat or tartness. The fries were the standard, could-have-come-from-a-bag type. The worst of all, though, was the ceviche andino. Some of the chunks of flounder in it were fishy and smelly -- on the brink of going bad if not already there.
The best dishes here are the sides. Creamed spinach (espinacas a la crema) is, thankfully, allowed to be spinach and not overwhelmed with cream or puréed to death. The grilled jumbo asparagus is fresh and a lovely green, and retains some of its firmness. A sweet potato, pumpkin and regular potato purée (puré de la nona) succeeded with its honeyed balance.
Those were all good, but the stacked vegetables were the best. They're served in the form of a clever little tower of yellow squash, zucchini and carrots, layered together with the spinach purée. At the bottom is a thick slice of tomato, which adds a lot of moisture to a forkful. But who visits a restaurant just for the sides?
The wine list has many good choices. There are several Malbecs by the glass that work wonderfully well with beef. There's also tremendous markup. A Tercos Bonarda that retails for about $12 a bottle was listed at three and a half times the price at $42.
On one Saturday night, the bar was clearly overwhelmed and it took 15 minutes to get a caipirinha that was too sweet and a Manhattan that, for some mystifying reason, was served on the rocks and watered down by the time it hit the table. Manhattans should be served "up" unless the customer requests otherwise.
The servers are good -- polite, accommodating and willing to answer questions about the menu, wines and ingredients. One seemed to sense the discontent with the rib eye and offered to bring some chimichurri over for it. The garlicky, parsley-infused sauce indeed helped a great deal.
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On busy nights, noise levels are high. Tierra del Fuego has all the soundproofing of a barn. Noise bounces from the wood-beamed ceiling to the tiled floors. Are there any restaurateurs who think about sound control before they open, or is it all done after the fact?
Parking is very convenient. There is both a nearby garage and a valet right in front of the restaurant. (The valet does not necessarily know how to drive a stick shift.) The garage is connected to the sidewalk through an office building. Just take a left when you hit the sidewalk, and you're at Tierra. It was raining on both visits, and there was still no problem staying dry.
Decadence is justifiable if the flavors are enticing enough. There's nothing wrong with having a meat-fest. There are simply places that are better at facilitating that experience. Tierra del Fuego is going to have to up its seasoning game if it wants diners to tango with it more than once.
Zapallitos rellenos $7 Puré de la nona $6 Chorizos parrilleros $6 Espinacas a la crema $6 Espárragos a la parrilla $6 Lomo saltado $13 Pollo a la parrilla $23 Bife de fuego $27 Bife ancho $48 Bife de chorizo de pastura $48 Parrillada gaucha $52